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With playoff drought over, Panthers seek next step

by Mike Battaglino

If the Florida Panthers improve this season the way they did in 2011-12, a Stanley Cup might not be far off.

Consider: The Panthers jumped 22 points, nine places and 12 seeds in the Eastern Conference, made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2000, and won the only division title in franchise history.

Then, in the first round of the playoffs, they built a 3-2 series lead against the New Jersey Devils before losing Game 6 in overtime and Game 7 in double overtime.

The Devils went on to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

"We gave it our best shot and we were a goal away from moving on," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said after the season. "Who's to say what would happen in the next series? We don't deal in hypotheticals. We had a good year. We're very positive going into the offseason, but we're not satisfied."

Tallon gave the Panthers an extreme makeover prior to the 2011-12 season, adding 10 players to the roster and new coach Kevin Dineen.

"We obviously had a lot of new faces last year and one of those new faces included our head coach," goalie Scott Clemmensen told the team's website. "It created a very fun environment to be in and the team had some relative success throughout the season."

The Panthers have one of the most productive top lines in the League (Stephen Weiss-Kris Versteeg-Tomas Fleischmann) and one of its highest-scoring defensemen (Brian Campbell), with those elements combining for a top-10 power play.

Versteeg, one of last season's newcomers, signed a four-year contract as a free agent to stay in Florida, based in part on its potential to win.

"It feels pretty good. It's been a bit of a whirlwind the last two years but right now security was the No. 1 thing for me. To play in Florida was a No. 1 thing," Versteeg said after agreeing to the contract. "I mean it all came down to wanting to be in Florida and wanting to play here."

That desire to stay is a significant part of Tallon's plan for the franchise.

"We want people that want to be Panthers. It's very important," the GM said. "You don't want to sign people to long-term deals that are kind of iffy that they don't want to be here or they're doubtful that they want to be Panthers."

Campbell, another new face last season, scored a single-team career-high 53 points (tied for second among NHL defensemen) but will be looking for a partner after Jason Garrison left for his hometown Vancouver Canucks.

Filip Kuba was signed as a free agent to fill that spot, and forwards Peter Mueller and Alex Kovalev should add scoring to the forwards. The team also acquired veteran tough-guy forward George Parros.

George Parros
George Parros
Right Wing - FLA
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 4
SOG: 17 | +/-: 1

"We figure we are going to add some young guys to our lineup and George has had a history of being a real positive influence on young guys on and off the ice," Tallon said. "… He’s got good experience, he's a hard-nosed guy that works hard in practice and is a good model for our young guys and really will add some leadership in the locker room besides."

Veteran defensemen Ed Jovanoski and Mike Weaver mix with young players Keaton Ellerby (23) and Erik Gudbranson (20). Dmitry Kulikov (21) remains unsigned as a restricted free agent.

But assuming the long-rumored Roberto Luongo trade with Vancouver to supplant the tandem of Clemmensen and Jose Theodore never comes to fruition, any noticeable improvement will come from the Panthers' overflowing vault of high-level prospects.

Forward Jonathan Huberdeau, a Calder Trophy favorite, is expected to add significant scoring (he averaged almost two points per game last season and 1.5 this season for Saint John in the QMJHL and Canada at the World Junior Championship), and he could be joined by forward Quinton Howden and defenseman Colby Robak.

If the Panthers find some secondary scoring and get a boost of enthusiasm from their talented youth, Tallon's vision could be realized more quickly than he imagined.

"I'm really pumped about our future," Tallon said. "We had a great year last year, but our future even looks better. And that's what I'm excited about."

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